I am very interested in trying to understand how we can best help the poor and vulnerable. One of the great difficulties in this area is how to handle mistakes and failure from aid organizations. There are two sides of this. First, failures can easily sour donors to an organization, or more sadly to giving altogether. The larger the organization or project, and the more efforts that are made, the more likely, visible, and public failures are. Predictably, with USAID (America’s foreign aid) being over 50% larger than all private charities combined, it has especially had plenty of mishaps that critics can easily point out. However, the converse side of the expected backlash against failures is that charities are highly motivated to hide their failures. This is very unfortunate, analyzing failures are critical to helping us learn and make corrections. While small organizations may be able to hide their failures more easily than an entity as large as USAID, that doesn’t mean they don’t exist.
I have been part of a humanitarian aid failure. Almost ten years ago our church in Oregon began working with a pastor in Uganda to disperse funds to needy widows. This seemed like an obvious way to help those that needed help. Unfortunately things didn’t work out how we had hoped. Signs of fund misuse started to appear, and eventually we came to the realization that the pastor we were working with was completely lying to us, and taking the money for his own use. Of course, this was deeply disappointing to many of us, we had invested a lot of money in these widows, and it was quite disillusioning to find out that we were essentially giving our money to completely corrupt man misrepresenting his pastoral role.
However, much more important than our mistake was the response. They could have easily pulled out of Uganda and done something “safer” with our money. This pushed them to consider the motives. Were we investing our money in widows in Africa because we had met a pastor with a slick spiel or because there were people who were desperately in need of help? The leadership responded by looking at how they could restart the program, how they could go back and meet with new people, more carefully monitor funds, assess who they work with, and ensure that the money got in to the right hands. They (I certainly can’t take any credit for the response, as I was more of a passive investor, but was keen to what was going on) responded to failure, by recognizing that the fundamental reason for our path was because there were people who needed help, not because we had an easy solution.
Out of those challenges was birthed Next Generation Ministries. Paul Hunter, the leader, decided that rather than retreating away, he would commit himself deeper into the challenge of investing in Uganda, despite the numerous pitfalls. Paul recognized that God’s calls us to a relational level of action that pushes us beyond quick fixes and methods that may fail, and to forge ahead.
Of course another possible misstep in response to failure is to simply make the same mistake again. Failures should guide us in making better decisions in the future. If we truly care about the recipients, than we should be driven to see efforts that will successfully benefit them.
These lessons are as relevant, if not more so, to those of us who are donors. We can’t demand and drive the organizations we work with to feed us endless success stories. Now the lesson of not giving when we fail, and being honest and learning from our mistakes may sound rather elementary. Your mom probably taught you this at a very earlier age, and this is hardly a new revelation. While applying this to yourself may sound straightforward (albeit not necessarily easy), encouraging this type of behavior in organizations may not be so obvious.
If we are merely look for success stories, there are a few issues that can occur. First of all, it can be very tempting to discount the large scale organizations like UN, UNICEF, USAID, and World Bank, for example, because their mistakes have been so highly visible. These organizations are not necessarily working less efficiently than smaller organizations that can hide their mistakes more easily. The fact is that even in mistakes, many of the larger scale groups play an important role, particularly in carrying out development activities like vaccines that are much more effective when carried out on large scales. Just because their mistakes have been highly visible does not mean we should discount them from being a part of the solution to the extensive problems that need to be addressed. As donors, we must take a long and broad view of the perseverance and collaboration that is needed to help those who are in need.
Second, looking only for success stories creates incentives for organizations to hide or even ignore their mistakes. Learning from our mistakes can only happen when we recognize them, and learning from others’ mistakes can only happen when they are acknowledged and transparently shared. As donors we must consider transparency and honesty as one of the most valued traits of an organization.
Finally, looking only for quick success stories can lead to an unbalanced allocation towards short term gains. There certainly are plenty of exciting offers for quickly being able to give a family or a child a quick boost, and they are often indeed very beneficial. But it is critical to keep a long term perspective, and many of the efforts that are focused on long term change have less glamorous short term benefits. Activities like research and leadership development may not generate an instant, measurable success, but these are the types of investments that are needed to truly empower the next generation.
And this brings me back to looking back at our experience in Uganda. Even though I was a minimal contributor, I am proud that I could be a part of this experience. I got to see a mature, beautiful response to failure. They responded with transparency, rather than hiding the problem. Rather than giving up, a new organization was born. Rather than repeating the same failures, I saw organization that carefully learned, sought, asked questions, and worked with locals to develop various projects where funds can reliably achieve their goals. And rather than looking for quick fixes, they continued to adapt and adjust to invest in long term projects, relationships, and leadership development. As Next Generation Ministries continues to work in Uganda, I’ve seem them continue in the path. Their updates are not a continual litany of their successes. They freely share their challenges, difficulties, and even failures, acting with honesty, and continually trying improve. They have thoroughly invested themselves in a long term vision for Uganda, and provide an example for others.
As you look at ways to to help charitable organizations, consider placing a high value on their transparency and candor. Consider their adaptability as they learn from their mistakes. Consider their investment in long term, reproducible or sustainable solutions. And also remember that the pursuit of helping those in need is of utmost importance, even when it is difficult and certain efforts don’t work out. We don’t give up on medicine because sometimes it doesn’t work, we don’t give up on using computers because sometimes they crash, and we don’t give up on parenting because sometimes we make mistakes. Some goals are worth pursing even when it is hard.
If you would like to learn more about Next Generation Ministries or donate, visit their site: